Facebook’s new opaque political ads transparency site shows self-regulation isn’t enough

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This past week, Facebook launched a new political ad transparency website. Facebook believes that “shining a light on ads” will increase transparency, which in turn “will lead to increased accountability & responsibility over time – not just for Facebook but advertisers as well.“

I think they’re right — which should be no surprise given my focus on advocating for more political transparency in Washington over the two years I spent at the Sunlight Foundation — but reviewing reports of unlabeled political ads is going to be hard.

Overall, this site is a welcome step towards more transparency, but misses the mark. The site only “exceeds expectations” if you think a search interface that exposes no underlying data is sufficient to inform the public and regulators.

In my initial assessment, I concur with journalists who found Facebook’s new political ad system is missing a lot, as ProPublica reported. (Please install ProPublica’s political ad collector so they can inform the public about how well Facebook’s tool actually works.)

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On the one hand, it was easy to use Facebook’s new archive of “ads with political content” – essentially a simple search tool for paid political ads that have run since May 7, 2018 – at least once I got on my laptop and logged into Facebook. I found recent ads that matched Trump, Clinton, gun control and corruption.

If you click on “see ad performance,” you can learn more about each ad.

If you click on the username, you arrive at the Page behind the ads. Unfortunately, there’s no tab for political ads or link to this archive. It’s hard to see how folks will find them, without it.

As I noted on Twitter, however, there’s one more critical wrinkle: you can’t get to the page unless you’re logged into Facebook!

This would be hilariously ironic, if it weren’t for the context of Russian interference and how Facebook handled it. Self-regulation is not enough.

As sociology professor Zeynep Tufecki noted, no one — whether member of the public, the press, watchdog, academic, regulator or legislator – should have to agree to Facebook’s Terms of Service and become a user to access political data.

To Facebook’s credit, the director of product at Facebook, Rob Leathern, responded publicly to Tufecki on Twittter, stating that this page is a first step:

“More ways are coming to make the ads with political content and information more accessible to people. One of those is an API, another is exploring opening the archive to people not on Facebook. We started with the Facebook community to see how they use the tool and gain feedback from third parties, including our newly-formed Election Commission. We’ll continue to update on our progress.”

If Facebook started with open data with no log-in, they could have gotten feedback from third parties like the Center for Responsive Politics or the public. No one should have to be part of Facebook’s “community” to understand who is buying electioneering on the platform, for whom, and what’s being shown.

As I commented to Leathern, if Facebook is only “exploring” making this archive open to people not on Facebook, then it is not implementing the Honest Ads Act, as its staff has claimed to Congress and the public. I asked Facebook to post a public ad file as bulk open data on the open Web.

Leathern told me that “we have prioritized getting the archive in the hands of people to use (as of today) + will follow up soon with an archive API. Thank you for the feedback, we are definitely listening.”

That’s good news, but not good enough.

Real transparency at Facebook will look like a public file of all paid political ads that are disclosed on a public website with bulk open data downloads and an API, none of which require the public to log into the site.

The good news is that I think Facebook understands this page as a start, not an end. In a post that closes matches what he told me, Leathern wrote that they’re “working closely” with a new “Election Commission” to launch an API for the archives.

It’s good news, but no deadline cited.

It’s hard for me not to be happy that Facebook is finally explicitly embracing political ad transparency in words and (some) deeds, including public soul searching about what constitutes a political ad and a policy.

That’s progress.

It’s just long overdue. Ultimately, elected representatives should be the ones to enact standards for transparency for political ads online after debate, not tech company executives.

Until Congress and other legislatures around the world empower regulators like Federal Election Commission by updating electioneering rules and enacting standards for disclaimers and disclosures, however, I’m glad to see positive actions.

I hope Facebook, its founder and its staff deliver on its most recent promises and their public obligations. Given past, current or predictable interference, opacity is unpatriotic.

Federal judge rules public officials blocking the public on Twitter violates the First Amendment

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When the president or others with access to his Twitter account block American citizens from following @realDonaldTrump based upon the viewpoints they express, it violates their First Amendment rights.

In a historic decision, a federal judge ruled today that it is unconstitutional for President Donald J. Trump to block his critics on Twitter, as portions of @realDonaldTrump account constitute a public forum, which means blocking them based on their political speech violates the First Amendment:

We hold that portions of the @realDonaldTrump account — the “interactive space” where Twitter users may directly engage with the content of the President’s tweets — are properly analyzed under the “public forum” doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court, that such space is a designated public forum, and that the blocking of the plaintiffs based on their political speech constitutes viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment. In so holding, we reject the defendants’ contentions that the First Amendment does not apply in this case and that the President’s personal First Amendment interests supersede those of plaintiffs.

This is a historic win for the First Amendment and the public’s right to access official statements and participate in public discourse regarding those statements.

As I highlighted last year, tweets by @realDonaldTrump are official statements from the President, which means that the public has a right to equal access and participation around them, even when their speech is hosted on a private platform. The public interest argument was clear then:

“A president’s statements are not just made for people who voted for him or support his policies or politics.

Unfortunately, Trump is not alone: other local, state and federal politicians are also blocking their constituents on Twitter.

Doing so sends the wrong message to the public about whom they serve. Listening and responding to members of the public that they represent is a minimum expectation for public servants in any democratic state, whether those voices are raised in protest, petition, email, send letters or reply on social media. While there are practical challenges to making sense of millions of emails, tweets, call or letters, blocks are not the solution to filter failure.”

No President should block Americans from reading his official statements, replying or interacting with others here.

No other public servant should block constituents, either, from city councilors and alderman to judges, governors and mayors.

On Twitter, officials and politicians who have blocked constituents now consider policies to Mute accounts if someone is being vile or abusive, with transparency about guidelines and use. Users who abuse one another are already subject to accountability for violations of @Twitter rules, which could be reported by officials or civil society.

As the judge noted, addressing President Trump blocking people is legally tricky.

While we reject defendants’ categorical assertion that injunctive relief cannot ever be awarded against the President, we nonetheless conclude that it is unnecessary to enter that legal thicket at this time. A declaratory judgment should be sufficient, as no government official — including the President — is above the law, and all government officials are presumed to follow the law as has been declared.

President Trump should acknowledge the ruling and follow the law, unblocking everyone. Whether he’ll embrace such a change on his social platform of choice isn’r clear at all — especially given his refusal to follow security protocols for his iPhone, despite the risk of nation states spying on him.

In the wake of this ruling, the president should acknowledge the ruling in a video & tweeted post, work with Twitter to unblock everyone, and apologize for engaging in viewpoint-based discrimination and chilling the speech of his constituents, the American public.

But I doubt Trump will.

So, here’s a different idea. It would be an unprecedented move for an unprecedented presidency, but I hope Jack Dorsey and his board will seriously consider removing the Block feature from all official government accounts verified by Twitter.

If code is law and law is now encoded, one way for Twitter to embrace its DNA as a 21st century platform for free speech and make open, public access to official statements the default, putting pressure on Facebook, Google and others to follow.

Why it’s past time for governments to fix public comments online – and how

The Bot Wars, begun they have. Over the past two years, automated social media accounts and fraudulent regulatory filings have been used by anonymous parties to obscure public opinion, distort public discourse, and corrupt the integrity of rulemaking in the … Continue reading

President Obama announces forthcoming action on immigration using Facebook

President Barack Obama shared the news that he would address the nation tomorrow night regarding an executive actions he would take on immigration on Facebook before embedding the video on The White House blog and tweeting a link to it.

Even in late 2014, when the use of social media has become part of the warp and weft of American society and political discourse, seeing the president “go direct” to the people online, not through media, on an issue of this magnitude is worth noting. Over the past year, the Committee to Protect Journalists have hammered the Obama administration on transparency and White House photographers have criticized restrictions on access. Even tough critics of the administration’s record on access for photos or transparency, however, acknowledge the role social media and the Internet has now taken on in getting the words of the president out to the people he serves.

On that count, the fact that the “big four” broadcast TV networks in the U.S., CBS, Fox, NBC and ABC, are not airing the speech is noteworthy, as is that fact that Telemundo and Univision will carry it live.

People that want to listen over the Internet will be able to do so at whitehouse.gov/live or radio.

For more on the news, read the Washington Post’s report on the context that surrounds the executive action and a short history from the past 70 years of actions other presidents have taken on immigration, all of which should be considered in the context of the time, Congress and their longterm efficacy.

Google hopes Mr. Smith will use “YouTube for Government” to Hangout more online

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Google launched a “Google for Government” guide today, positioning it as a “a one-stop shop where government officials can learn how to get the most out of YouTube as a communication tool.” In a post on the Google Politics blog, Brandon Feldman recounts the use of YouTube by government, linking to examples from State of the Unionlegislative hearingsexplainer videos and Hangouts and asserting that “YouTube has become an important platform where citizens engage with their governments and elected officials.”

Putting aside the question of whether there’s two-way engagement going on or not in the comment sections on political videos on YouTube, which have been historically among the most toxic online, the guide will be useful to anyone looking for best practices on livestreaming or setting up a channel, playlists and other features.  As I’ve found, it’s quite easy to livestream a Hangout, save the recording to YouTube and share it afterwards.

The guide does include a section on “engaging your community” through Google Hangouts, a venue that I still believe has tremendous potential for Presidents and other elected leaders to receive real questions from citizens, escaping the bubble of media and access journalism.

Here’s hoping more representatives use this new technology to listen to their constituents, not just use it as a cheaper way to broadcast their speeches. That’s the wish Google Feldman expressed: “If you’re a government official, whether you are looking for an answer to a quick question or need a full training on YouTube best practices, we hope this resource will help you engage in a rich dialogue with your constituents and increase transparency within your community.”

The White House (quietly) asks for feedback on the open government section of its website

Obama at computer. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Over at Govfresh, Luke Fretwell took note of the White House asking for feedback on the open government section of WhiteHouse.gov. Yesterday, Corinna Zarek, senior advisor for open government in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), where the administration’s Open Government Initiative was originally spawned under former deputy chief technology officer Beth Noveck, published a email to the US Open Government Google Group:

We are working on a refresh of the Open Gov website, found at whitehouse.gov/open, and we’d like your help!

If you’re familiar with the history of the page, you can see we have begun updating it by shifting some of the existing content and adding new tabs and material.

What suggestions do you have for the site? What other efforts might we feature?

Please let us know – reply back to this thread, email us at opengov@ostp.gov, or tweet us at @OpenGov!

Here’s some background on the group and its purpose: The White House’s Open Government Working Group needs to solicit feedback from civil society in the United States on the various initiatives and commitments the administration has made. Such engagement is essential to the providing feedback from governance experts, advocates and the public on the development of new agency open government plans and discuss progress on the national open government action plan.

As a result of a discussion at the working group this spring, OSTP created the US Open Government discussion group to connect White House staff and agency officials who work on open government to people outside of the federal government. According to the group’s description, the goal of this group is to “provide a safe and welcoming arena for government-focused collaboration and news-sharing around Open Government efforts of the United States government.” That “safe and welcoming” language is notable: the group is moderated by OpenTheGovernment.org with an eye on constructive, on-topic feedback, as opposed to, say, the much more open-ended freewheeling posts and threads on the (long-since closed) Open Government Dialog of 2009 or Change.gov.

After almost six months, the open government group, which can be accessed through a Web browser or using an email listserv, has 177 members and 37 posts. By almost any measure, these are extremely low levels of participation and engagement, although the quality of feedback from those members remains extremely high. By way of contrast, a open government and civic tech group on Facebook now has over 1900 members and an open government community on Google+ has over 1400 members, with both enjoying almost daily contributions. Low participation rates on this US Open Government Google Group are likely due in part to lack of promotion by other White House staff to the media or using the various social media platforms has joined, which cumulatively have millions of followers, and, more broadly, the historic lows of public trust in government which have created icy headwinds for open government initiatives in recent years.

So far, Zarek’s solicitation has received two responses. One comes from Daniel Schuman, policy director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) in Washington, who made great suggestions, like adding a link to ethics.data.gov, a list of staff working on openness in the White House and their areas of responsibility, a link to 18f and the USDS.

“Finally, there are many great ideas about how to make government more open and transparent,” wrote Schuman. “Consider including a way for people to submit ideas where those submissions are also visible to the public (assuming they do not violate TOS). Consider how agencies or the government could respond to these suggestions. Perhaps a miniature version of “We the People,” but without the voting requiring a response.”

The other idea comes from open government consultant Lucas Cioffi, who suggested adding a link to a “community-powered open government phone hotline” like the experiment he recently created.

To those ideas, I’ll add eight quick suggestions in the spirit of open government:

1) Reinstate the open government dashboard that was removed and update it to the current state of affairs and compliance, with links to each. The Sunlight Foundation and CREW have already audited agency compliance with the Open Government Directive. By keeping an updated scorecard in a prominent place, the Obama administration could both increase transparency to members of the public wondering about what has been done and by whom, and put more pressure on agencies to be accountable for the commitments they have made.

2) Re-integrate individual case studies from the “Innovator’s Toolkit,” which was also removed, under participation and collaboration

3) Create a Transparency tab and link to the “IC on the Record” tumblr and other public repositories for formerly secret laws, policies or documents that have been released.

4) Blog and tweet more about what’s happening in the open government world outside of the White House. Multiple open government advocates do daily digests and there’s a steady stream of news and ideas on the #opengov and #opendata hashtags on Twitter. Link to what’s happening and show the public that you’re reading and responding to feedback.

5) Link to the White House account and open government projects on Github under both the new participation and collaboration tabs, like Project Open Data.

6) Highlight 18F’s effort to reboot the Freedom of Information Act.

7) Publish the second national action plan on open government as HTML on the site, and post and link to a version on Github where people can comment on it.

8)  Create a FAQ under “participation” that lists replies to questions sent to @OpenGov

If you have ideas for what should be wh.gov/open, well, now you know who to tell, and where.

Data journalism and the changing landscape for policy making in the age of networked transparency

This morning, I gave a short talk on data journalism and the changing landscape for policy making in the age of networked transparency at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC, hosted by the Commons Lab.

Video from the event is online at the Wilson Center website. Unfortunately, I found that I didn’t edit my presentation down enough for my allotted time. I made it to slide 84 of 98 in 20 minutes and had to skip the 14 predictions and recommendations section. While many of the themes I describe in those 14 slides came out during the roundtable question and answer period, they’re worth resharing here, in the presentation I’ve embedded below:

[REPORT] On data journalism, democracy, open government and press freedom

On May 30, I gave a keynote talk on my research on the art and science of data journalism at the first Tow Center research conference at Columbia Journalism School in New York City. I’ve embedded the video below:

My presentation is embedded below, if you want to follow along or visit the sites and services I described.

Here’s an observation drawn from an extensive section on open government that should be of interest to readers of this blog:

“Proactive, selective open data initiatives by government focused on services that are not balanced by support for press freedoms and improved access can fairly be criticized as “openwashing” or “fauxpen government.”

Data journalists who are frequently faced with heavily redacted document releases or reams of blurry PDFs are particularly well placed to make those critiques.”

My contribution was only one part of the proceedings for “Quantifying Journalism: Metrics, Data and Computation,” which you can catch up through the Tow Center’s live blog or TechPresident’s coverage of measuring the impact of journalism.

United States federal government use of crowdsourcing grows six-fold since 2011

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Citizensourcing and open innovation can work in the public sector, just as crowdsourcing can in the private sector. Around the world, the use of prizes to spur innovation has been booming for years. The United States of America has been significantly scaling up its use of prizes and challenges to solving grand national challenges since January 2011, when, President Obama signed an updated version of the America COMPETES Act into law.

According to the third congressionally mandated report released by the Obama administration today (PDF/Text), the number of prizes and challenges conducted under the America COMPETES Act has increased by 50% since 2012, 85% since 2012, and nearly six-fold overall since 2011. 25 different federal agencies offered prizes under COMPETES in fiscal year 2013, with 87 prize competitions in total. The size of the prize purses has also grown as well, with 11 challenges over $100,000 in 2013. Nearly half of the prizes conducted in FY 2013 were focused on software, including applications, data visualization tools, and predictive algorithms. Challenge.gov, the award-winning online platform for crowdsourcing national challenges, now has tens of thousands of users who have participated in more than 300 public-sector prize competitions. Beyond the growth in prize numbers and amounts, Obama administration highlighted 4 trends in public-sector prize competitions:

  • New models for public engagement and community building during competitions
  • Growth software and information technology challenges, with nearly 50% of the total prizes in this category
  • More emphasis on sustainability and “creating a post-competition path to success”
  • Increased focus on identifying novel approaches to solving problems

The growth of open innovation in and by the public sector was directly enabled by Congress and the White House, working together for the common good. Congress reauthorized COMPETES in 2010 with an amendment to Section 105 of the act that added a Section 24 on “Prize Competitions,” providing all agencies with the authority to conduct prizes and challenges that only NASA and DARPA has previously enjoyed, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which has been guiding its implementation and providing guidance on the use of challenges and prizes to promote open government.

“This progress is due to important steps that the Obama Administration has taken to make prizes a standard tool in every agency’s toolbox,” wrote Cristin Dorgelo, assistant director for grand challenges in OSTP, in a WhiteHouse.gov blog post on engaging citizen solvers with prizes:

In his September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, President Obama called on all Federal agencies to increase their use of prizes to address some of our Nation’s most pressing challenges. Those efforts have expanded since the signing of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which provided all agencies with expanded authority to pursue ambitious prizes with robust incentives.

To support these ongoing efforts, OSTP and the General Services Administration have trained over 1,200 agency staff through workshops, online resources, and an active community of practice. And NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI) provides a full suite of prize implementation services, allowing agencies to experiment with these new methods before standing up their own capabilities.

Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy famously once said that “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” This rings true, in and outside of government. The idea of governments using prizes like this to inspire technological innovation, however, is not reliant on Web services and social media, born from the fertile mind of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. As the introduction to the third White House prize report  notes:

“One of the most famous scientific achievements in nautical history was spurred by a grand challenge issued in the 18th Century. The issue of safe, long distance sea travel in the Age of Sail was of such great importance that the British government offered a cash award of £20,000 pounds to anyone who could invent a way of precisely determining a ship’s longitude. The Longitude Prize, enacted by the British Parliament in 1714, would be worth some £30 million pounds today, but even by that measure the value of the marine chronometer invented by British clockmaker John Harrison might be a deal.”

X-prize-graph-300x297Centuries later, the Internet, World Wide Web, mobile devices and social media offer the best platforms in history for this kind of approach to solving grand challenges and catalyzing civic innovation, helping public officials and businesses find new ways to solve old problem. When a new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, it can improve the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.

“Open innovation or crowdsourcing or whatever you want to call it is real, and is (slowly) making inroads into mainstream (i.e. non high-tech) corporate America,” said MIT principal research professor Andrew McAfee, in an interview in 2012.” P&G is real. Innocentive is real. Kickstarter is real. Idea solicitations like the ones from Starbucks are real, and lead-user innovation is really real.”

Prizes and competitions all rely upon the same simple idea behind the efforts like the X-Prize: tapping into the distributed intelligence of humans using a structured methodology. This might include distributing work, in terms of completing a given task or project, or soliciting information about how to design a process, product or policy.

Over the past decade, experiments with this kind of civic innovation around the world have been driven by tight budgets and increased demands for services, and enabled by the increased availability of inexpensive, lightweight tools for collaborating with connected populations. The report claimed that crowdsourcing can save federal agencies significant taxpayer dollars, citing an example of a challenge where the outcome cost a sixth of the estimated total of a traditional approach.

One example of a cost-effective prize program is the Medicaid Provider Screening Challenge that was offered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) as part of a pilot designed in partnership with states and other stakeholders. This prize program was a series of software development challenges designed to improve capabilities for streamlining operations and screening Medicaid providers to reduce fraud and abuse. With a total prize purse of $500,000, the challenge series is leading to the development of an open source multi-state, multi-program provider screening shared-service software program capable of risk scoring, credential validation, identity authentication, and sanction checks, while lowering the burden on providers and reducing administrative and infrastructure expenses for states and Federal programs. CMS partnered with the NASA Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI), NASA’s contractor Harvard Business School, Harvard’s subcontractor TopCoder, and the State of Minnesota. The State of Minnesota is working on full deployment of the software, and CMS is initiating a campaign to encourage other states to leverage the software. COECI estimates that the cost of designing and building the portal through crowdsourcing was one-sixth of what the effort would have cost using traditional software development methods. Through the success of this and subsequent
challenges, CMS is attempting to establish a new paradigm for crowdsourcing state and Federal information technology (IT) systems in a low-cost, agile manner by opening challenges to new players, small companies, and talented individual developers to build solutions which can “plug and play” with existing legacy systems or can operate in a shared, cloud-based environment.

As is always the nature of experiments, many early attempts failed. A few have worked and subsequently grown into sustainable applications, services, data sources, startups, processes and knowledge that can be massively scaled. Years ago, Micah Sifry predicted that the “gains from enabling a culture of open challenges, outsider innovation and public participation” in government were going to be huge. He was right.

Linked below are the administration’s official letters to the House and Senate, reporting the results of last year’s prizes.

COMPETES FY2013PrizesReport HOUSE Letter (PDF)/COMPETES FY2013PrizesReport HOUSE Letter (Text)

COMPETES FY2013 PrizesReport SENATE Letter (PDF)/COMPETES FY2013 PrizesReport SENATE Letter (Text)

[Image Credit: NASA SDO. Context: Solar flare predictive algorithm challenge]